Omaha 1935: Riots, Strikes, and Streetcars

by Breht O’Shea.

Omaha has a long and often hidden history of rebellion, riots, and bloody reaction. From public lynchings, to mobs of white racists attacking Greek ethnic enclaves (1909), to countless labor disputes and strikes, to a slew of race riots all throughout its history (especially in the mid and late 1960’s), Omaha has often been the battleground for clashes between progressive and reactionary forces.

One labor dispute in Omaha’s rich history, however, stands out as particularly illuminating: the streetcar strikes of 1935.

Gurdon Wattles was an early capitalist and banker who was responsible for consolidating all of the independent streetcar lines into one company, called the Omaha Traction Company. Wattles was fiercely anti-union and was a leading advocate of keeping as many businesses “open shop” as possible; meaning a place of employment where no one is required to join or financially support a union.

Wattles had clashes with pro-union streetcar workers throughout his reign, including a fairly large strike in 1909. In response to that strike, Wattles brought in strikebreakers from the east coast whom he described as a “jolly lot of disreputables” who were “always ready for a fight”. This led to rioting by pro-union forces for four days, with large support from the Omaha community which refused to ride the streetcars during the strike.

The strike severely hurt Wattles’ reputation in Omaha, and he would complain about being attacked by “socialistic and anarchistic elements” throughout his life as a public figure. Although Wattles died a few years before the 1935 streetcar riots, the anti-union mindset that he so ruthlessly put into practice was entrenched in his businesses, and it would manifest once again in an ultimately deadly set of clashes in the spring and early summer of 1935.

In April of that fateful year, tensions between the “open shop” minded management of the Omaha Traction Company and pro-union labor forces broke out into one of the city’s most memorable and violent strikes. The company, following in the footsteps of their late owner, once again hired strikebreakers from the east coast to come to Omaha, and soon after rolled out streetcars that resembled something out of Mad Max.

The streetcars were heavily fortified, with thick armor and heavy barbed wire over the windows. Each car was occupied by armed guards. Although the city council made multiple calls for arbitration between management and the strikers, the company refused to come to the table and continued hiring strikebreakers from outside the city.

In May, violence erupted. Workers went on the offensive by planting bombs, attacking the streetcars, beating strikebreakers in the streets, and even targeting some with rifle attacks. By early June, mobs were burning streetcars to the ground. The turmoil ultimately resulted in two deaths and around 100 injuries. The violence between the company and strikers was so extreme the governor declared martial law, shutting down portions of the city and calling in 1,800 National Guardsmen to quell the rioting.

Sadly, despite multiple strikes for recognition, the Omaha Traction Company never unionized. It ultimately went defunct in 1971.

Strikes are the worker’s voice

The first chapter of The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, opens with the following monumental statement: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. The streetcar strikes and riots in Omaha during the early months of 1935 are just one tiny iteration of this basic universal truth in the long, arduous, and inexhaustible march of human history. But that core claim remains as true in 2018 as it was on the day it was written by Marx and Engels over a century and a half ago.

Today, just as it was in 1935, the same basic dynamic of a capitalist class society exists: a small class of ruling elites own a massively disproportionate amount of the wealth and power while the huge swaths of ordinary working people own very little. Outside of their own labor power (which people are coerced to sell to the capitalist class in exchange for a relatively small hourly wage) billions of people have nothing with which to make money. All this while a significant chunk of their labor value is siphoned away as “profit” and put into the pockets of the owning class.

In fact, the disparity of wealth and power is worse today than it was in 1935. In a recent report, global charity Oxfam found that the richest three Americans (Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Omaha’s own Warren Buffett) own more wealth than the bottom half of Americans combined, 160 million people. Globally, the richest 1% of human beings received 82 percent of all new wealth in 2017, while a shocking 0% went to the poorest half of humanity – 3.7 billion people.

While we may we recoil at the violence of strikes and riots from years ago, we must realize that the same basic dynamics which gave rise to that violence are not only still with us, but are actually worse today than they’ve ever been. Moreover, the nauseating levels of wealth and power inequality in our society today are founded in, and maintained by, systematic and institutional exploitation, domination, oppression, theft, greed, and, yes, naked and brutal violence.

The strikers and rioters of 1935 weren’t engaging in violence because they enjoyed it. They were pushed into it by unfair treatment, poor wages, bad working conditions, and a refusal by the management to allow them to organize to pursue a better life for them and their families. That’s not violence for violence’s sake, that’s self-defense.

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